Tolerance of Jews a ‘litmus test’ for Libya

Here is the full text of a speech delivered at a conference in November on Democracy in the Arab World by the chairman of the Libyan Jews’ Association in the UK, Raphael Luzon. He was speaking at the American Congress in Washington.

Luzon’s speech was warmly welcomed by the audience, representing many of the Arab world’s discriminated groups. This led to reports in the Arabic press and TV interviews on Al-Arabia, Al-Jazeeraand Al-Hurra. Many approached him afterwards to express their sympathy and understanding.
The feedback is still echoing though his email and telephone.

“First let me greet you in my ancestral language: Sabah El Kher ua Ahlan Ua Sahlan Bikum. I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to address such a distinguished forum and my appreciation for the organizers and participants for granting me this honor. I am grateful for the invitation.

I would like to begin with a short personal introduction, which reflects the shared reality of most Libyan Jews, and indeed parallels the lives of Jews who were born in the lands of Islam.

I was born in Libya, like my father and all my ancestors going back to the year 700. Please pause to reflect on the significance of this legacy.

Benghazi was my birthplace, and I have vivid memories of the richness of life there, enhanced not only by the beauty of the country, but also a cultural and ethnic harmony of a peaceful and prosperous society, before and under King Idris El Sanoussi.

In those days, Muslims and Jews honored each other’s holidays and holy days, closed business deals with a handshake and greeted each other as neighbors.
This all changed with the advent of the Six Day War.

In 1967, at age 13, I barely escaped with my life from the turn of events culminating in a bloody pogrom. My family, formerly prosperous and respected, was forced to leave everything behind. We have left behind also eight bodies: my Uncle’s, his Wife and six children killed by an Libyan army officer. We were allowed only a suitcase and 20 Libyan pounds.

We fled to a refugee camp in the countryside, and finally found asylum in Italy.
My father had been a wealthy businessman, known and respected by Jews and Muslims alike. We had to begin afresh in a welcoming but alien culture, and despite the difficulties and obstacles we rebuilt our lives by always looking forward with optimism and never backward with bitterness or animosity. Others in my extended family were not that fortunate, as you heard. And while our rightful inheritance has been taken from me and my family we still carry sweet memories of our birthplace. We are Libyans, and we are Jews.

We were thrown out from Libya but no one can take Libya out from our hearts.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, over a million Jews were forced to flee their ancient homelands, though formerly their Islamic rulers had protected them for centuries. It is ironic that the Palestinian issue has gained worldwide sympathy, yet the history of the Jews born in Islamic lands, murdered, forced to convert, or violently expelled, has been largely ignored. It is notable that in most cases the Jews were the indigenous population and often preceded the Moslem conquest by many centuries.

Perhaps the unspeakable impact of the Holocaust eclipsed our plight; perhaps it was convenient for the world to ignore this wrenching exodus. Perhaps the world was not yet ready to address the concept of Human Rights.

The Palestinians have much in common with the Jews from Islamic countries, in that both parties are victims of the same conflict , except for one crucial difference: However flawed their current situation may be, the Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel have representatives in the Israeli Parliament. They are not only allowed, but encouraged to vote. One would be pressed to name a single Arab country which welcomes or allows a Jew any political representation let alone access to a just and independent legal system.

I do not think that the Israeli-Arab conflict is a conflict of religion or a conflict of lands. It is rather a conflict between Democracy and a monolithic block of dictatorial leaderships.

Admittedly Palestinians suffered losses, but dozens of international bodies provide material help on daily basis and still label them “refugees” after 57 years. But who is caring for the suffering and loss of wealth and property of those million Jews exiled from Arab Lands? I have lived that history, and speak not only for myself, but also in their name. We were uprooted and expelled. We have been denied compensation. We watch helplessly as our culture, language and legacy disappears and our part in history is systematically erased. In short we have been truly ethnically cleansed.

The Libyan Jew does not ask to create a separate country next to Libya. The Moroccan Jew does not ask to create a country next to Morocco. The Syrian Jew, the Iranian Jew, and the Iraqi Jew – all have accepted the fate of exile.

But if the price of peace in the Middle East is the creation of a Palestinian state, let us live as good neighbors. Let us prosper together, let the Palestinians put behind them the concept of Nakba, and seize the opportunity to rehabilitate their young state as a nation among the family of the civilized nations of the world: By renouncing violence, by embracing tolerance, by educating their people, by forming their own democracy. Death and destruction must no longer be seen as a goal. There is no honor in sowing death and destruction.

Since my exile from Libya, I have never forgotten my country. To this day, I carry the wish to visit the land and city of my birth. For 37 years, I have kept this wish in my heart, and in the past four years have taken small steps to try and realize this dream by building bridges and extending the hand of friendship and peace,

I was one of the activists who arranged for 190 Libyan Muslim pilgrims to visit Al Kuds – Jerusalem- in 1993. I wrote many articles which were published in the press and on Internet, calling for Justice not only for Libyan Jews but for any Libyan who was illegally deprived from his assets and basic human rights. I initiated the first conference of Libyan Jews in Great Britain, which resulted in the establishment of the Association of the Jews of Libya UK, of which I am chairman. Our aim is to create a forum for the Libyan Jewish congregation to cultivate our Libyan traditions, our music and culture, to bequeath to future generations. We were astonished by the positive reaction and support we received from our Libyan brothers and sisters Muslims and Jews from all over the world.

We have been beaten by Libya. But, like when your Mother slap your face this is not a reason to beat or hit her back, Libya is our Mother. Although we receive a big slap on our faces, we will never have a bad sentiment against our birthplace!

Recently, the Libyan leadership has displayed a new openness towards the West. This kindled some hope in the Libyan Jewish Diaspora, after hearing declarations that “the Jews are welcome back” and “the Jews are the sons of Libya”. So far these quotes seem to be only rhetoric. It confuses us: a leader, Moammar El Kadhafi, who had the courage to pass a law, unanimously accepted in parliament in 1974, to protect and secure in law the right of Libyan Jews to a fair and just compensation for their confiscated property and assets within 20 years: 30 years on, we are still waiting.

For the sake of centuries of peaceful coexistence I have a personal request from the Leader of the Revolution, Moammar Kaddafi, which, with your permission and I will articulate it in this respectable forum.

• That my family should be permitted to receive the remains of eight members, my Uncle, his Wife and their six children, who were murdered in the streets of Tripoli in 1967 by a Libyan army officer.
• My Family wishes to give them a proper dignified burial according to the Jewish religious laws. /شريعة.
• And that my octogenarian mother’s one last wish, to visit her birthplace should be granted. It would be a small act of kindness and would reverberate throughout our community worldwide.

The Arab world stands now at a very significant crossroads. There are indications of a rising awareness on the part of many rulers in the Middle East that totalitarian rule begets dangerous repercussions. Small steps indicate a new beginning.

We witness with appreciation the recent surge of awareness on the part of Arab intellectuals, such as those of you participating in this conference, who realize that it is time to seek and discover the truth, to reject distortions and propaganda, to consider the lessons and facts of history and demand an end to repression, ignorance and poverty.

It is a slow process with many obstacles, but is my sincere wish to witness the evolution of a bill of rights for all individuals, regardless of sex, race or creed, to fully participate in the social, political, economic and civic life of their country.

The Jews have often been referred to as the ‘litmus test’ of how a country treats its minorities. If we review history, and read carefully about 15th century Spain before the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims and the madness of the Inquisition, that Golden Age was the era when Muslims and Jews advanced a glorious culture with knowledge and education, with commerce and cooperation, and above all, with mutual tolerance and respect. Let us spare no effort in educating and raising our children so that the wisdom of their ancestors guide them to a better and more harmonious future.”

May God be with you and
Assalamu Lakum ua Lana Jamiiaan

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